The ethnic political war that those of us who care about Los Angeles have long feared has begun.
Its first casualty was Ruben Zacarias, the city's flawed but fundamentally decent public schools' superintendent. He was ousted two weeks ago in a messy coup d'etat by school board members who claim to be reformers but who carried out their plot with the crude zeal of machine pols.
Nor will Zacarias be the last casualty. His many friends and allies in the city's politically restive Latino community are sharpening their knives to go after the political puppeteers they believe engineered Zacarias' ouster--particularly Mayor Richard Riordan.
Riordan may be able to escape unscathed himself. He can't run for reelection because of term limits, and he has enough personal wealth to never think about a public sector job again.
However, Riordan has friends and allies, too, not to mention young staffers with political ambitions of their own. They are the ones who are likely to pay the price for Riordan's presumptuous and paternalistic methods. And don't think they don't know it.
Only last week, the mayoral ally that Riordan wants to be his successor, Westside developer Steven Soboroff, met with a delegation of top Latino political activists in an effort to persuade them he had nothing to do with Zacarias' ouster. He told them that the coup was the handiwork of William Wardlaw, the Pasadena attorney who is Riordan's chief political advisor.
Soboroff didn't win over many skeptics, according to participants in the session. Too many people in the room knew that Soboroff, who heads a citizens' commission overseeing school construction funds, handpicked the man who was put in over Zacarias in the coup's immediate aftermath--real estate attorney Howard Miller.
Miller is a former L.A. school board president whose name will be forever linked with another local school fiasco, the forced busing program in the 1970s.
In bringing him back to the LAUSD a generation later, the current board majority at first named him CEO and later--in a refinement made in response to outrage over the public humiliation of Zacarias--changed his title to chief operating officer. It is expected that a prominent Latino educator--probably former New York schools' chief Ramon Cortines--soon will be named superintendent in an attempt to mollify Latinos upset over how Zacarias was treated.
However, the still-rising Latino anger over the Zacarias affair will not be so easily stilled. Vengeance is inevitable.
The wisest course now for those community leaders who have so admirably tried to play peacemakers over the last couple of weeks--like Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), City Councilman Mike Feuer and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky--should be to focus on getting innocent bystanders out of the way before the political bloodletting escalates.
First and foremost, this power struggle must be moved as far from the schools as possible. No one wants schoolchildren hurt, so Villaraigosa must work with other Latinos in the Legislature to make sure the money and resources needed for day-to-day instruction keep flowing to Los Angeles, even as Zacarias' allies in Sacramento join other critics of the Los Angeles Unified School District in an effort to break it up into smaller, more responsive components.
Once the kids are protected, Latino activists must reach out to other ethnic and religious groups to reassure them that they are not the enemy. A few extremists have tried to make an issue of the fact Miller is Jewish. But so are two school board members, David Tokofsky and Julie Korenstein, who have pushed consistently for treating Zacarias with respect.
Even the school board board majority that treated Zacarias so shabbily, and which arrogantly rebuffed Latino leaders when they insisted that any change in superintendents be done legally and openly, can be let alone for the time being. After all, they are "mere puppets," in the sharply incisive words of Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. He added: "We need to go after the puppeteers."
So far, most of the Latino leaders and activists I have spoken to about the Zacarias affair are focusing their cold, calculating anger on how to do that.
"Riordan has a plantation mentality," I was told by a conservative Mexican American corporate executive who said he knows the mayor all too well. "He's gotten off scot free so far, and it's got to stop."
On the other end of the political spectrum, a longtime Latino activist of Marxist leanings is e-mailing Latinos all over town with long-circulating rumors that Riordan once owned the badly polluted downtown property where the Belmont Learning Complex was built. (Zacarias' failure to deal more decisively with the Belmont scandal is what led to his ouster--although the project was started long before he became superintendent.) Near as journalists at this newspaper have been able to determine, those rumors are false.
Yet the fact the rumors are getting renewed--and wider--currency should be a clear warning to Riordan and his ilk of how nasty this war is likely to be.